Art by Jordan Denato
In my spiritual journey, I have openly looked at many different incarnations. I grew up in a non-demonational Christian household, with most of our time in a place of worship spent at the Catholic Church blocks from my mom's old house. I had a small exposure to Judaism growing up which I kept up as I put together my Jewish heritage and also worked at a Jewish magazine, Tikkun (where, oddly enough, I spent most of my time writing about Catholicism), when I was most open to religious ideas.
Nothing ever exposed me to the Russian Orthodox Church, however. The narrative about Russia in the 1990s and 2000s was pretty black and white - communism was godless and atheist and hostile to all religion. I had heard of the Greek Orthodox Church but never the Russian Orthodox. Honestly, it's only been in very recent years that it seems to have formed a place in the mainstream American consciousness.
The Orthodox Church has a rich and long history that extends through the Soviet Union. Whatever Vladimir Lenin may have said about religion, Josef Stalin found it beneficial to keep the church going, especially during the dark days of World War II. It has been a massive part of the ideology surrounding the rise of Vladimir Putin as Russian president - with Putin often taking press shots during mass or having Russian patriarchs accompanying him during press conferences and speeches.
Putin has said of the orthodox church that it is "closer to Islam than Catholicism is." Indeed, one of the interesting ways that the Orthodox Church is so different is that much of its aesthetics are so exotic. They likely are mundane to anyone who grows up in it but their unique cross logo and the use of a headscarf to instill modesty in young women, much like within Islam, show a synergy of East and West. Much of the church's artwork is also simply gorgeous:
It did have a reach in to Western though as well. Just as the Catholic church had Thomas Merton as its American intellectual, so too did the Orthodox Church have Seraphim Rose. Born Eugene Dennis Rose in 1934, he died during middle age in 1982. In that time he made a series of talks that synthesized many of the beliefs of individuals like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who, despite his time in the gulag, was very hostile to "the misuse of liberty" that he reported from his experience with Western society. Seraphim Rose expressed this same sentiment in my favorite work of his - "The Abnormal Life:"
At first, Seraphim's sentiments sound cliched. "The new generation has it easier than we did," that sort of thing. His talk of "children today" being treated "little Gods or goddesses" whose every need is taken care of certainly sounds that way.
However, when you juxtapose the world he grew up in, southern California, with the world in which he attracted to of Eurasia, his comments seem less trifling. Poverty and life on the edge of the earth breeds people who are much more likely to value and foster tradition, as opposed to rejecting or mocking it. Marriage occurs and lasts more often and family is much more heavily valued.
Rose gets at his most weighty in "The Abnormal Life" when he juxtaposes the faith he discovered with the "plastic" religion of countries like the United States, he is speaking in the context of the early 1980s. That period was when Ronald Reagan had just recently been elected to the presidency of the United States, riding on the wings of an invigorated Religious Right. It was a time when Billy Graham drew enormous crowds throughout the world and venues like Christian Broadcasting Network were first starting up. Rose, in an opinion that had to be extremely unpopular to most audiences back then, said that the atheist regimes of China and the Soviet Union were closer to the reality of life than the plastic theology practiced within much of the West.
Unfortunately, despite his influence, Rose didn't make a whole lot of other speeches like that one - not that I am aware of anyways. (If anyone more read about him than I knows of, please let me know.) We do seem to be entering an age that illustrates a return to orthodoxy in religion - Donald Trump's daughter is an orthodox Jew, while the Pope and Russian Patriarchs get more press and adulation than any contemporary evangelical leader. Perhaps another like Seraphim Rose will arise - this stuff, with the venue of social media and a much larger audience before him.